When I was very young, growing up in South Dakota, some of the first words I learned to say were, "Come up and see me some time." By the time I was in grammar school, the regular family thing when company came was: Hey, Joanie! Come in here and show us your Mae West imitation!
I'd put my hand on my hip and vamp around a moment before delivering the line over my shoulder. Come up and see me some time.
By the time I moved with my parents to Los Angeles during WWII, I already had my sights set on being a movie star as glamorous as Mae West. We had barely unpacked from the long trip to California before my mother spotted an article in the newspaper about a gala party and one of Hollywood's most glamorous nightclubs, the Mocambo. Right after dinner we drove over and joined the crowd waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars as they entered the club.
Clutching a brand-new autograph book, I squeezed my way to the front of the closely packed crowd behind the barricades. My eyes popped as the stars climbed smiling and waving out of their cars and into the bright lights, past the cheering gauntlet of fans.
Bette Davis hurried in, so small she looked like a young girl.
A collective sigh escaped the crowd as a giant Packard limousine pulled to the curb and disgorged the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Mae West.
Clad in a black gown with silver sequins that appeared to have been sprayed on, and with her blonde hair encircling her hair like a halo, she was escorted by an entourage of half a dozen tanned and well-built young men.
I wanted desperately to ask for her autograph. "Go on, Jo, ask her," my mother urged, reading my mind.
"But what if she says no?" I asked in a quavering voice.
A strange woman nearby spoke up. "Go on, honey. She won't say no to someone as cute as you are."
I looked from the woman's eyes to my mother's. She nodded.
My knees shook as I slipped under the barricade and solemnly held out my autograph book and pen. "May I have your autograph, Miss West?"
She stopped and looked down at me. Her eyes were clear, crystalline blue. Her smile was like a bank of lights.
"Sure, sugar. What's you name?"
"Joanie…" I managed to say through a dry throat.
She made flourish and I heard the pen scratching on the paper. "There you go, Joanie," she said with that unmistakably throaty voice as she handed back my autograph book. She swept past with her entourage trailing in her wake.
I looked at what she had written. "Best of luck to Joanie, a very pretty girl." I stood in the walkway looking after her until my mother pulled me back behind the barrier.
That night before I drifted off to sleep with my autograph book tucked safely under my pillow I had definitely made up my mind. I would be a glamorous movie star just like Mae West-or nothing.
Fast forward a couple of decades.
I teamed up with producer/director/writer Albert Zugsmith to do a string of pictures for MGM. Among them was "The Beat Generation" in which I starred opposite a burly, rough-hewn hunk named Steve Cochran. Steve and I had a steamy on-screen chemistry that was equally matched by our off-screen chemistry.
I was recently legally separated from bandleader Ray Anthony, and on the prowl for someone to match my raging hormones. Ray had a small role in the movie, which had been arranged before we were estranged. Steve and I launched into an affair that had the cast and crew of "Beat Generation" whispering behind their hands. No sooner would we finish a scene than we would disappear into my dressing room for a quick fuck while they set up the next shot.
(Ray got the surprise of his life snooping around my dressing room one afternoon. When he opened the door without knocking, he found me sitting astride Steve having sex in a chair. Location never mattered much to me. If I had the urge to do someone in an elevator or a taxi or the swimming pool, that's where it happened.)
Steve and I had dated for a short time when I found out that he was also seeing Mae West on a regular basis. Steve had been a young actor in one of Mae's Broadway shows when she "discovered" him. (Mae always had a yen for younger men. Of course, I did too.) At first he told me that they were working on a script together, but as time went on, it became clear to me that there was a good bit of other work going on too. Steve finally admitted that he and Mae had been lovers for some time.
It has never been my style to share a lover. If someone isn't willing to be with me exclusively, I feel they should move on. But I made an exception in this case. It was, after all, Mae West.
Hey, Joanie! Come in here and show us your Mae West imitation.
Come up and see me some time.
Steve explained that whenever he was called to service Mae, he had to show up with a recent (and negative) test for venereal disease. Mae always liked a man who was dark and dangerous-looking, and equipped with a large cock. Steve fit the bill perfectly.
There was no question of romantic love with Steve. Our attraction was purely physical. So, I asked myself, do you really mind?
The answer, of course, was no. If I ever would have participated in a menage a trois, it would have been with Steve and Mae. I was never asked.
Mae West was the founder of the franchise. All of us who aspire to the mantle of "sex symbol" or "glamour girl" build on the foundations that Mae laid down. At a time in our history when a glimpse of a woman's ankle was thought of as maddeningly erotic, Mae was arrested for indecent behavior in a Broadway show that she wrote and produced. When the scripts she received from the studios were not up to her standards, Mae wrote her own. And at the time when she was of an age that most women sought out the rocking chair and knitting needle, Mae was strutting her stuff in Las Vegas and recording rock and roll records.
You go girl!
Mae has always held a special place in my heart. I was told that, of the Three M's, Mae liked Mamie the best. And she was kind enough in later years to give me cart blanche to use a song of hers in my night club act. When her long life was finally over, she had accumulated more myths, rumors, and legends than any three Hollywood stars. She lives on in our hearts and on our late movies. When I see one, I am always struck by how good, smart, and ahead of her time Mae West was. I like to think that Mae is smiling down on the rest of us carrying on in short skirts, plunging necklines, and thong bikinis. And I like to think that she is waiting for the rest of us.
Come up and see me some time.